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Charles John Huffman Dickens
Intro Early Works First Major Novels "Dark" Novels Later Works Further Readings

Birth: February 7, 1812 in Portsea, England
Death: 1870
Nationality: English
Occupation: author, novelist, journalist


The English author Charles John Huffam Dickens (1812-1870) was, and probably still is, the most widely read Victorian novelist. He is now appreciated more for his "dark" novels than for his humorous works.

Charles Dickens was born on Feb. 7, 1812, at Portsea (later part of Portsmouth) on the southern coast of England. He was the son of a lower-middle-class but impecunious father whose improvidence he was later to satirize in the character of Micawber in DAVID COPPERFIELD. The family's financial difficulties caused them to move about until they settled in Camden Town, a poor neighborhood of London. At the age of 12 Charles was set to work in a warehouse that handled "blacking," or shoe polish; there he mingled with men and boys of the working class. For a period of months he was also forced to live apart from his family when they moved in with his father, who had been imprisoned in the Marshalsea debtors' prison. This experience of lonely hardship was the most significant formative event of his life; it colored his view of the world in profound and varied ways and is directly or indirectly described in a number of his novels, including THE PICKWICK PAPERS, OLIVER TWIST, and LITTLE DORRIT, as well as DAVID COPPERFIELD.

These early events of Dickens' life left both psychological and sociological effects. In a fragmentary autobiography Dickens wrote, "It is wonderful to me how I could have been so easily cast away at such an age. ... My father and mother were quite satisfied. ... My whole nature was so penetrated with grief and humiliation of such considerations, that even now, famous and caressed and happy, I often forget in my dreams that I have a dear wife and children; even that I am a man; and wander desolately back to that time of my life."

The sociological effect of the blacking factory on Dickens was to give him a firsthand acquaintance with poverty and to make him the most vigorous and influential voice of the lower classes in his age. Despite the fact that many of England's legal and social abuses were in the process of being removed by the time Dickens published his exposés of them, it remains true that he was the most widely heard spokesman of the need to alleviate the miseries of the poor.

Dickens returned to school after an inheritance (as in the fairy-tale endings of some of his novels) relieved his father from debt, but he was forced to become an office boy at the age of 15. In the following year he became a freelance reporter or stenographer at the law courts of London. By 1832 he had become a reporter for two London newspapers and, in the following year, began to contribute a series of impressions and sketches to other newspapers and magazines, signing some of them "Boz." These scenes of London life went far to establish his reputation and were published in 1836 as SKETCHES BY BOZ, his first book. On the strength of this success he married; his wife, Catherine Hogarth, was eventually to bear him 10 children.

From ENCYCLOPEDIA OF WORLD BIOGRAPHY (17 VOLS), Gale Group, © 1998 Gale. Reprinted by permission of The Gale Group.

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